It is desirable if a set of universities aims at contributing to specific social purposes directly. These may include the achievement of human/social development or enhancement of the productivity or incomes of poorer people or rural producers. There are a few universities of that kind in India. These include the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Institute of Rural Management in Anand, and Azim Premji University (Bangalore). This note describes some of the challenges faced by these institutes of higher education. Without understanding the nature and specifics of each challenge, the task of achieving social impacts will remain problematic.
Without understanding the nature and specifics of each challenge, the task of achieving social impacts will remain problematic.
Indian universities may engage different stakeholders or learn entrepreneurial and innovative methods to produce effective responses to the challenges. This is based on the information available in the articles on each of these three institutes2 written by the author.
Precariousness in funding
Though these institutes started with funders who were wedded to the specific social purpose, such funding may decline over time. This has happened in the case of the two institutes mentioned here. Then such institutes may have to depend on new funders (and these may include the government) and/or a major part of the cost for running the institute may have to be generated from students as fees. The new funders may have their own priorities and these need not be in tune with the founding vision. If the fees from students become a major part of the income, they may be interested in courses which give them maximum private benefits, and the social impacts may not be their primary concern. The changes in funding can compel these institutes to move away from their initial objective.
Imperatives of the labour market
All students who get education in such institutes may not take up careers which have a direct impact on society. They may look for jobs which give them maximum compensation. Such jobs may maximise the revenues of private entrepreneurs but not necessarily the impact on society. It is diﬃcult (and may not be desirable) to compel students to take up a specific career path. A major part of the institute’s time and eﬀort may have to be diverted to normal students and the institute may not have much control over what they may do with their career. This issue is complicated due to the admission procedure necessary for any such higher education institute, and that is discussed in the following section.
The impact of screening at the time of admission
Institutes would be in high demand as these acquire certain reputation. There could be a competition among students to get in. There may be a need for using diﬀerent screening devices at the time of admission. This may require the use of proficiency in conventional academics. Educating those who are academically proficient need not be the appropriate strategy to address certain social issues. This is much more so in countries like India where quality education is accessible to and acquired only by a small section of the society. Educating those who are academically proficient need not be the appropriate strategy to address certain social issues. This is much more so in countries like India where quality education is accessible to and acquired only by a small section of the society.
Educating those who are academically proficient need not be the appropriate strategy to address certain social issues. This is much more so in countries like India where quality education is accessible to and acquired only by a small section of the society.
On the other hand, the social issues like poverty and underdevelopment are severe among the majority who may not get quality education. Students from this set have to get education in such institutes if their social goals are to be reached. Designing appropriate admission procedures could be a challenge.
Not enough knowledge and learning materials on how to make social impacts
For universities to have a social impact, their education programs should help students to bring about the desired social impact. This requires practice-oriented knowledge. Though management schools have a long tradition of using case studies and such practice-oriented learning materials for the transformation of for-profit organisations, social science teaching has not focussed historically on the development and use of such materials. Instead social sciences focused more on the critical understanding of social processes, and these are good at assessing/evaluating projects, programs and social practices. Problem solving has not been an important part of social science education. There is a need to build knowledge on how to bring about change, if universities aim at social impact.
Problem solving has not been an important part of social science education. There is a need to build knowledge on how to bring about change, if universities aim at social impact.
Most of these universities have included provisions for the field practice of students. However, the class room teaching of conventional subjects like sociology and economics remain somewhat disconnected with this field practice.
The incentive structure of academics
Conventionally academics are evaluated on the basis of research publications in the peer reviewed journals. It is from this general pool of academics that these social impact universities recruit their faculty. It is important for these academics to continue the same practice (so as to be acceptable within the general pool). This may not encourage or enable them to develop the specific knowledge and credibility required for the universities which aim at social impact. This may require changes in the incentive structure of academics but these may be in conflict with the prevalent academic culture. This can create a certain dissonance, and this may work against the flourishing of conventional academics in universities which aim at social impact, or they may gradually reshape these universities into conventional ones.
Needed changes in the ideas of academic autonomy
Ideas of academic autonomy are built on the experience of liberal universities whose social purposes are not direct. These may even consider the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as highly valuable. On the other hand, the universities which aim at a direct social impact, may have to take diﬀerent steps which are driven by the purpose. For example, it may have to increase the student population substantially to increase the impact. It may have to admit students who may not be highly proficient according conventional academic standards. It may have to meet the needs of population which may not be educated well. It may have to design programs which educate public at large or their representatives. It may have to enhance the scale of operations. All these may not be managed appropriately by the academic community. Certain aspects of the governance and operation of the university may have to be carried out by practitioners/managers. Making these acceptable to the academic community could be a challenge.
It is a genuine desire to start universities which can have a direct social impact. However, realizing such a goal is not that easy in the current context. This may require highly committed funders who are willing to provide finance on a sustainable basis, the ability to attract and educate those students who are likely to contribute to the social impact, a willingness to get out of the conventional screening procedures to select students and finally a set of academics who are willing to learn from and contribute to impactful practices.